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Offset your carbon concerns

Date: 07 February 2007

New Government standards to ensure carbon offset schemes do what they're supposed to is good news for polluters, writes Guy Bird

Is it just me, or does the whole idea of carbon offsetting feel a bit like giving money to a Big Issue vendor? You want to do the right thing and help out, but there's a nagging doubt in your mind that the recipient may just go and spend the proceeds on a can of Special Brew (or an equivalent strength global equivalent).

My offset worry hasn't been alleviated, either, by several chats with high-up business types. "It's okay, we've carbon-offset all our business mileage which only goes to UK schemes, as you can't keep a handle on those 'foreign' ones," they say. Or: "It only costs me £85 to offset my annual 4x4 emissions - which seems very cheap - but hell, now I'm covered", and even, "I'm not really sure how robust these schemes are but at least I'm doing something."

Like anything a bit new-fangled and nebulous, there is a lot of confusion about how effective carbon offsetting is. The good news is the Government has put its backing behind setting up a new independent standard that all right-minded offset schemes will want to sign up to. Those that don't (the code will only be voluntary) will quickly look a little suspect. This should hopefully result in more of your hard-earned business pennies going to well-audited schemes that really do reduce emissions.

How green is your offset?

It all starts with a consultation paper, which was launched in late January by DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) and invites submissions from interested parties. It closes on April 17 with the aim of a voluntary Code of Best Practice up and running by the autumn. (Interestingly, the long list of consultees - which includes everyone from British Airways and BP to EasyJet and the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership - does not include a single major carmaker.)

“Offsetting isn't the answer to climate change. The first step should always be to see how we can avoid and reduce emissions - through thinking about how we use energy in our homes and businesses, and the way we travel”

David Miliband, environment secretary

Launching the consultation, environment secretary David Miliband said the standard and associated code of practice would raise the bar for the offsetting industry: "People need to be sure that the way they offset is actually making a difference. The Government's standard and code of practice, with a quality mark so people can check easily before they choose an offsetting product, will help to provide that certainty."

The hope is, of course, that the new code will not only provide assurance to the early adopters that their charitable/guilty donations have real planet-saving consequences but also encourage more skeptics to come on board.

Meantime, all those business car-related companies planning to declare themselves 'going carbon-neutral' for moral and economic advantage this year, should check out whether the companies running their proposed carbon offset schemes are aware of the proposed Code and confident they will measure up under its regime. From a personal level, I tend to lean towards Milliband's other quote on this subject - also made at the consultation's launch: "Offsetting isn't the answer to climate change. The first step should always be to see how we can avoid and reduce emissions - through thinking about how we use energy in our homes and businesses, and the way we travel."

And on that note, before you start rounding on me, I would like to point out that I walked to work to write this column (a six-foot commute from the bedroom to my office in the next room) and only stopped for one coffee (from a one quarter-filled electric kettle) during the writing of this article. The computer was switched on for the entire time I admit, a necessary evil for which I apologise unreservedly.

Guy Bird is our editor-at-large and political columnist.